20 years after co-founding Avalanche Studios and laying the foundations for the Just Cause series, Christofer Sundberg is ready to break new ground. As Richie Shoemaker quickly found out, he just isn’t ready to shell out for a Marco Maxibrew
What kind of monster refuses to buy his employees a coffee machine? Not just any employees either, but Scandinavians. If you’ve ever worked at or visited a studio within a short hop of the Arctic Circle, you will know that those holed up inside – with their lopapeysa sweaters and cosy slippers – don’t just love a hit of coffee, they take a particular interest in the machines that deliver it. You won’t find any catering sized tins of Nescafé in any of their kitchen cupboards (nor much in the way of decent tea either, but that’s besides the point). Unless, we assume, you’re at the Stockholm office of Liquid Swords, where founder Christofer Sundberg has decided to hold back on the one piece of office equipment that might ingratiate him with his colleagues.
“I won’t get a coffee machine for this company until the day we all think that we have earned it,” he says. “I don’t want us to be comfortable. I want us to be hungry and use smart ways to develop games rather than just trusting a big bunch of cash. It’s short-term thinking, thinking that more money will save everything.”
To be fair to Sundberg, he’s not against his employees having coffee or denying them the facilities to make it. That would plainly make him a tyrant. It’s just that in spite of Liquid Swords being a well-funded start-up (NetEase announced taking a stake in the company back in November), with the studio still to announce its first title, to paraphrase the once-great Morrissey, they “just haven’t earned a state-of-the-art, all-singing, all-dancing coffee machine yet, baby.”
Liquid Swords isn’t just lacking when it comes to beverage options, either. At the time of writing the company is still without a home. Sundberg is speaking to us from a temporary studio space in Stockholm, just across the street from what will be the permanent one. It’s a short move, but one that has been delayed a number of times, much to the obvious frustration of the boss, who admits that when the move does go ahead, he might have to invest in a coffee machine sooner rather than later, if only to keep the troops on side.
Also sooner than later – which is to say this year if all goes to plan – Liquid Swords hopes to formally announce its fact that it will be an open-world affair. Coming from the co-founder of Avalanche Studios and the creator of Just Cause, there’s a danger of course that players will have certain expectations that will be hard to shake. “Anyone who wants to see a Just Cause type of game from Liquid Swords will be quite disappointed” says Sundberg. “It’s less playful,” he says of the untitled new game. “It’s more narratively driven. It’s more adult. It’s more slow-paced. It’s discovering the psyche of a human being being put in very difficult situations. It’s basically a dark family drama but in an action world.”
While understandably reluctant to discuss the specifics of what Liquid Sword’s debut will offer, Sundberg is more forthcoming when it comes to how an open world game should be crafted. He nods diplomatically as we put it to him that there appear to be two broad approaches: First, the Bethesda and CD Projekt way, which is to launch into a critical mass of hype and expectation, possibly not with the most polished game, but to support it with updates and content-rich DLC, and, crucially, allowing for third-party mod support to extend the life of the game. Then there is the path that Ubisoft appears to follow, which is to develop highly templated games on a more regular basis, where many of the gameplay elements appear interchangeable across different IPs and titles, which has resulted in the unfairly characterised ‘Ubiworld’ and its often unflattering busywork. “Our approach has been to first work with a licensed tech. We’re working with Unreal Engine 5, which has been an absolute blessing, which has allowed us to focus heavily on the content development rather than all the systems behind it.
“Our open world is definitely more controlled than it was in Just Cause.” Sundberg cites Avalanche’s underrated Mad Max as a comparison. “With open world games there is so much focus on how big the world should be, but that’s completely uninteresting if we can’t fill that world with meaningful content and players have to spend half an hour going from A to B just to pick up a little bag and go back to point A again. For us, it’s the density of content and density of gameplay and how we tell our story that will be different. Our side quests will make a big difference – that’s something that we’ll talk about more in the next year when we announce the game.” He adds: “We’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from the classic tabletop games where you have a game master. We let the game be the game master, basically, to tell the story outside of the main campaign.”
While he was at Avalanche, Sundberg said that Just Cause had become the DNA of the studio, which, given that it was something he obviously couldn’t extract and sneak out of the building when he handed back his badge, begs the question of what’s in the DNA of Liquid Swords?
“It’s tough to say,” he says after a long pause. “Company DNA is something you discover after a few years. I have my vision, but in terms of the company culture and DNA, it’s something that the team here and the individuals working on the team will form. Like Just Cause was, I think, the signature game of Avalanche, our current game will set the standard for what a Liquid Swords game will be, which is still open world.” Sundberg insists that Liquid Swords will be drawing on all the experiences of all the games each individual on the team has worked on, whether that’s Avalanche’s games, or the likes of Payday, Battlefield and GTA. “All that experience comes together in this game,” he says. “That would probably be in the DNA.”
The game that Liquid Swords plans to soon announce, which is currently going by the inspired codename ‘Game 1’, is one that Sundberg says would not get made were he still at Avalanche Studios, which suggests that it wasn’t a difficult decision to leave the company and set up anew. “Not at all,” he says, quickly adding, “not in any bad way, but after I sold the company to Nordisk Film it wasn’t mine anymore. I’m not very good at maintenance. I like to build stuff and since it was all in the hands of the management that had been there for a few years, there were less things I could do to affect where I could see the company going and what drove me forward and what I was passionate about. So it was a good time for me to leave, and I think it was good for everyone.”
So what came first, the idea for the new game, or the desire to leave Avalanche? “The idea for a game came first but it was almost simultaneous. It is a passion project and it’s the game that I really want to make and being able to invest in that on my own has been absolutely fantastic. I know exactly what I want from this game. I can tell everyone here exactly what I want. Obviously I’m not dictating stuff by saying that, but I have this vision, mostly in my head, that I’m presenting constantly to the team. How it evolves, with our discussions within the team, with everyone’s input and so on, has just been a fantastic process. I would never have taken the idea to another developer or publisher and tried to pitch it. I’ve been standing too many times with a hat in my hand. I’m done with that.”
Soon after founding Liquid Swords in 2020, Sundberg said that he wanted to make a difference in the world of game development. Not just a different kind of open world game – different from those that Avalanche seemed likely to greenlight at any rate – but also a different way of making games.
“Game development is so extremely complex and what I’ve found is that so many developers and publishers are just over complicating the process and that stands in the way of quality. That’s something that I really want to focus on. Quality is a word that everyone uses, but when it comes to the end of the project, so many put less of a priority on quality and more on the business model behind the game.
“I don’t want to force anyone to pay for post-launch content of our game. There is not some business model forcing any player to have to pay for that content to have the full experience of the game we’re making. I think that’s really what games have come to, a lot of games, and it’s really sad.”
Sundberg’s focus on quality is how he hopes Liquid Swords will be eventually seen as a ‘super studio’: “It’s not the size of the company that defines our success. I mean, anyone can build a big company. It’s not very hard, but it is really hard to make a really high quality game. And that’s what will make us a super studio. Our core team will be one hundred and then we’re working with development partners. We are currently working with a number of development partners around the world and it’s working really well. They are in our meetings and it’s like they are part of the team.”
For the first time in a good few years, Sundberg appears to be very much involved – and thus enjoying – the creative process of making a game. “Oh, it’s the best part,” he says without hesitation. “Working with a very focused team is what I like the most. There’s no prestige in this team. There are no egos, no sharp elbows, which I absolutely love.
“Obviously it’s more fun in the early days, before you get into production and things get more and more set in stone. But getting to that point is so inspiring. It’s so great to be able to work with this team, which has years and years and years of experience. Even among the more junior talent within the studio, the input has been absolutely amazing.
“Also everyone here comes from big studios where they spend most of the day sitting in meetings. Here we have meetings, of course, but they rarely last for more than thirty minutes. I have a very short attention span, so there’s no reason why we should take up everyone’s time sitting in meetings. It’s a bit of a change of mindset for everyone. For me too. I mean, I never made an investment of this size before and it has just put a requirement on everyone here to be entrepreneurial, be disciplined and think creatively about everything we do. Including when we make coffee.”
Just before we went to press we asked Liquid Swords on an update on the office situation. The good news is that as you read this, the team should be settling into its new studio at last. Best of all, two coffee machines have been installed, each loaded with four varieties of coffee bean. We hope they’ll all be very happy in their new home.